Washington and Tehran Can Both Win

Despite the appearance of rigidity, both Washington and Tehran have recently (not to mention historically) shown occasional willingness to be flexible, suggesting that if there were a will to resolve this unnecessary and dangerous conflict, there would be a way.

Over the last three decades, U.S.-Iranian relations have constituted a classic case of foreign policy failure, with incompetence on both sides provoking needless hostility that undermined the national security of both sides. Viewing U.S.-Iranian relations from this high level perspective makes the conflict look hopeless: neither side ever listens to the other, and nothing—it seems–ever changes. The reality is quite different, but to see the trees of hope in the dense forest of doom, one must look close up and make distinctions between the conifers of conciliation and the hardwoods of hostility, i.e., between different dimensions of political behavior.

Like a forest in which maples, say, are healthy while pines, say, are diseased, examined carefully, it turns out that U.S.-Iranian relations are characterized by significant flexibility on some dimensions of behavior while little change occurs on others. Between 2008 and 2010, for example, both sides repeatedly (but, importantly, not consistently or in coordination with the other side, demonstrated flexibility by moderating their conflict resolution strategy; on the other hand, the overall context remained consistently threatening, with Iran surrounded by U.S. military forces and Israel threatening nuclear aggression. How one evaluates the state of U.S.-Iranian relations depends greatly on which dimensions one focuses on.

Dimensions of Behavior
Behavior occurs across a variety of “arenas” or “dimensions,” all of which may occur simultaneous and, naturally, get very confused. In a marriage, for example, one might have a “financial” dimension, covering who earns money and how much that spouse gives to the other spouse; a second dimension might be “psychological,” including tone of voice and losing one’s temper. Clearly, hostile behavior in one dimension can wash over into another dimension. Nations have the same problem. 

Discussions of “U.S. behavior” or “Iranian behavior” are too broad, like trying to describe a whole forest by sound bites about hardwoods or conifers—terms that average out crucial differences. To see what actually happens, one must look at specific dimensions of behavior. This is hard because no one actually knows what the most important dimensions of behavior in the realm of U.S.-Iranian relations are. One can, however, point to a handful that seem likely to be among the most significant and then look to see what sort of changes occur in each of these dimensions and whether or not the same type of change occurs simultaneous in all dimensions. If change is consistent across all dimensions, then altering behavior is likely to be very difficult; if conciliatory moves along one dimension happen at the same time as hostility is rising in another dimension, however, then tinkering with the details of the offending dimension may well induce a fundamental shift in the overall relationship. If a mixed forest is suffering from hardwood decline because all hardwood species are diseased, the situation is far more serious than if a minority of hardwoods happen to be flourishing (suggesting that minimal intervention targeting the specific problems of individual species at risk might move the whole forest to a tipping point from rising disease to rising health).

The ability to manage relations with a foreign state at the level of specific dimensions rather than at the crude level of the overall relationship is one mark of professional decision-making. Both Washington and Tehran have had a very hard time doing this over the last three decades.

Just as one must look at maples and pines—rather than limiting oneself to generalizations about “all hardwoods” or “the whole forest” to evaluate the health of a forest, one must look at specific dimensions or “driving forces” to evaluate the state of U.S.-Iranian relations. Two such dimensions are the conflict resolution strategy selected by each side and the degree of commitment by each side to ideology rather than pragmatism.

Although each side has relied primarily on hostility as the primary conflict resolution mechanism, both have exhibited occasional flexibility. The primary example on Tehran’s side was probably its support for, ironically, Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. Obama’s Cairo speech suggested a significant shift by Washington, as did its interest in negotiating a nuclear fuel swap. Tehran’s coordination with the Erdogan-Lula initiative suggested that Tehran was succeeding in distinguishing the national security dimension from that of domestic politics, where the regime was just emerging from a struggle for power that had attracted, depending on one’s point of view, a lot of American “attention” or “interference.” More recently, Tehran has signaled flexibility by its willingness to return to nuclear talks, despite a dramatic hardening of Washington’s position (rejection of the Erdogan-Lulu initiative, intensification of economic warfare, addition of yet another aircraft carrier group to its Persian Gulf armada, and the barbaric reference by Senator Graham to “neutering” the Iranian regime).

Despite appearances to the contrary, if one examines the behavior of each side carefully, one can identify significant evidence of flexibility, from time to time, on the part of both Washington and Tehran. Building on such flexibility could lead to a win-win solution to this unnecessary and highly dangerous conflict.

The U.S.-Iranian conflict is extremely dangerous because it involves both the potential for nuclear war and the potential for further destabilizing the Mideast. It is unnecessary because there is plenty of room in the world for the U.S. to continue to be the only superpower even while Iran rises to a position of regional prominence. The conflict (from the perspective of the two states, not necessarily from the perspective of specific politicians) is self-defeating because it harms the national security and economic well-being of both sides. On a whole range of issues–Afghanistan, Iraq, illegal narcotics, stabilization of hydrocarbon markets, the two sides share common interests.

Nevertheless, this conflict will not be easy to resolve as long as emotion and bias hold center stage. A serious professional effort by decision-makers to resolve the U.S.-Iranian conflict will require understanding and responding to the other’s signals in a timely manner, but to do this will require examining the “trees,” not just the “forest” of U.S.-Iranian relations. Only by distinguishing the various dimensions of the relationship will decision-makers be able to resist negative trends and promote positive trends; only thus will the opportunities for achieving a tipping point and guiding relations in a new direction be perceived.


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